The Secret of a Long Journey
by Sandra Shwayder Sánchez
California: Floricanto Press, 2012. 184 pages.
Reviewed by Regina Igel
The novel The Secret of a Long Journey is a dense and intriguing journey through time and space, related to Jews victimized by the Iberian Inquisition, and focusing on the destinies of some of them in the New World. The narrative starts in Flanders, during the reign of Charles V, king of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Besides other lands, the imperial territory included what today comprises Holland and Belgium, where the narrative begins.
The first character to be introduced is Mayken, who was born and lived in the rural Brabant area before her marriage to Pieter, a painter of portraits, when she moved to a town still in Flanders. The woman, who also was a painter, had a sensitive spirit and generous disposition. At regularly alternate periods, she would be happy and unhappy, talkative and silent, would wander around or be sleepy, paint or become absent-minded, and so on. She counted, however, with the love, patience and care of her husband, who brought into their home a helping hand, Miriam, who became very dedicated to the household, and important in the development of the many stories narrated in this book.
A Jewess in disguise, Miriam had a large heart, feeding the hungry and helping beggars, the poor and the destitute in general, as much as they could, since Mayken would do the same. So it happened that Miriam knew a couple of young refugees, Susanna and Miguel, hidden in a cave in the outskirts of the town – the lady was Jewish, her companion was a Catholic priest. She became pregnant at the same time as Mayken, who was “almost forty.” Both women delivered their sons at the same time, with Miriam dividing her services as midwife between the two childbirths. While the Jewish boy was healthy and physically fit, Mayken´s baby was born “dead and deformed.” Without the knowledge of the mothers, Miriam switched the boys. While the mothers were still asleep, she placed the little corpse close to the Jewish mother, and brought the healthy Jewish boy to Mayken, as if she had given birth to him. Miguel, a sinful priest with a Jewish lover, approved the swapping of babies, since he didn’t see any future for his family, execrated by the Kingdom and the Church rulers. The couple had a tragic end, but their son was alive and would be raised by the painters and their Jewish housekeeper. He was named Jacob and, at a certain age, was informed by Miriam about his Jewish origin as the son of a Jewish mother. Still a young man, Jacob was encouraged by Miriam and Mayken to leave Flanders, due to the Inquisition’s persecution against the Jews. So he went across the ocean and reached New Spain, all three of them knowing that they would never see each other again. In Veracruz, Mexico, he met a man, a New Christian, to whom he was entrusted to deliver a book in Hebrew. This new acquaintance and his family hosted him as if he were a long-lost son. He grew up to become knowledgeable in the Kabala under the tutelage of his host, and also became a silversmith. It was at that time that Luis de Carvajal met his tragic destiny as a secret Jew, in the hands of the Spanish inquisitors in Mexico (1595).
The premonition of an Amerindian woman indicated to Jacob that he would have a daughter as soon as he moved to another area. So it happened. Jacob went north, and his companion, formerly the common law wife of a late priest who was a Jew in disguise, gave birth to Jacob’s daughter. These characters became some of the generators of the many narratives gathered in this book, all of them interlinked, covering 424 years (from 1566 to 1990), or approximately 10 generations, stretched across two continents.
The author alternates the stories along the times and places when and where events occurred. Thus, Jacob and other Jewish males who fled the Inquisition and looked for refuge in Central and North America became the progenitors of a lineage of American- and Mexican-born children. Their mothers were usually women of determination, met by the fleeing men on their way to a secure place, an Eldorado of rather spiritual dimensions. One of the common traits among these men was that they would always be on the move, leaving behind them their growing families. A common feature among their women was that they raised their children - with the exception of one, all of them female - by themselves, letting them know, at a proper age, that they were descendants of Jews turned New Christians. They also would teach their offspring the basics of Jewish rituals, according to the teachings of their men and, in some cases, of their own predecessors.
So, we learn about Elijah Benveniste, the Spaniard who fled from the Inquisition and found a haven in the Southern Rocky Mountains, by the end of the 16th century, even though his family had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. “An exile wherever he turned, laughed at the irony of his name and his destiny” (p. 51), Benveniste fathered a girl, named Maria. Her mother, half-Jewish herself, was the daughter of another refugee, Isaac Mendoza. The Jewish lineage mixed with the locals, whether they were half-Jewish, New Christians or not, penetrated into the forests, the mountains, and the valleys of the region that today includes New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and areas in the vicinity. Dolores, Rosa, Maria, Rosaria are the names of the women who kept the Judaic faith from generation to generation, even though their men, the Jews fleeing from the Inquisition, left them to do so with the scraps of Judaism they collected from their families and the fathers of their children. Furthermore, they would inculcate a mixed religion in their descendants, composed of bits and fragments of the Jewish faith through songs and prayers, along with some of the American Native beliefs. As it happened with Jacob, Isaac Benveniste, and other men associated, though briefly, with local women, Isaac Mendoza, a traveler in the 20th century, would be part of similar stories told by contemporary residents of Colorado. These stories reached a young lady who was Mendoza’s granddaughter.
Lois, a young female lawyer practicing in Colorado in the 1990s and a descendant of a Jew who arrived in the southern region of the United States centuries ago, decided to extricate her loose and entangled Iberian-Jewish genealogical ribbons, linking the New Christians’ or the conversos’ past to their descendants in the present. She was part of them, as her real name was Luisa Rosaria Mendoza Goldberg, granddaughter of Isaac Mendoza, having anglicized and shortened her name to Lois Gold. This character may be representing the ‘returning Jew’, the one who, having been isolated for generations from the communal practice of Judaism, is happy to be able to cultivate it openly and fearlessly. The regions of Colorado and New Mexico are known for movements led by descendants of the New Christians who have aimed to be or are part of the practicing Jewish population. This book refers to them as well as to the pleas of the local indigenous population against discrimination.
The Secret of a Long Journey may be described as a historical novel, for some factual incidents that it incorporates in its dense and descriptive 14 chapters, headed by quotations from medieval chronicles, history books, and newspapers, linking historical facts to the chapter’s development. Two distinguished atmospheres prevail in the narrative: when describing characters’ attitudes and actions related to the 16th and 17th centuries, the writing is of a whimsical nature, filled with readings through winds, birds’ chirps, clouds, dreams, nostalgic feelings and premonitions, these nourished in a magic and surrealistic atmosphere, encompassing characters’ thoughts, reflections and actions. On the other hand, when describing activities taking place in the 20th century, like Lois Gold’s performance as a lawyer in and out of court, or the claims by the indigenous and other minorities, the style is of a concrete, real and even aggressive tonality, for it incorporates the angry voices of the destitute in their demands for justice and social fairness.
An interesting ending awaits the reader in the final pages: a Jewish bride and a Catholic groom perform a wedding ceremony, where he breaks a glass under his foot, within the Jewish tradition. The celebration seems to represent all past “marriages” between the New Christians, Iberian adventurers, and the local women, who left a stream of Judaism from the times when the Inquisition threw them into American territories. Therefore, the novel can be seen as a message for the recognition of Judaism within the community of their descendants and, by the same token, for the pleas of the indigenous population, as the brief mention of Russell Means, a leader of their cause, seems to suggest. Moreover, it may be seen as a subtle, but not too hidden, appeal for the recognition of all minorities in the world. I recommend this novel to all who would like to understand better the relatively unknown and tangled history of the first Jews - disguised as New Christians - in the Americas.